Justification by Faith in Catholic – Protestant Dialogue (Part 3)
How God assesses our good works
This is the third part of what I can deduce from, Justification by Faith in Catholic – Protestant Dialogue, a book by Prof. Anthony N.S. Lane (first published in 2002). The first two posts deal with what Prof. Lane describes as three distinctive features of Protestant Justification and what sola fide really means. This post will discuss on what he wrote about how God assesses our good works, which again he relies mostly on Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion (Inst. for short). As usual all his statements, if quoted directly, are in italic.
In relation how our good works are assessed before God, Calvin divided mankind into four groups: (1) unbelievers, (2) nominal Christians, (3) hypocrites and (4) believers who are born again of the Spirit and seek after holiness (Inst. 3:14:9-11). We concentrate on the fourth group. According to Calvin even the works performed by this group are tainted – It is not that their works are not good but that they are less than 100 per cent good. Judged by the standard of God’s holiness and purity they fall short, they are less than perfect. Prof. Lane admits that this is a negatively depressing and demotivating message. What is the point of bothering to do good? Why seek to serve God if one’s best works will be flung back in one’s face as tainted and inadequate? God looks more like strict quality controller or judge with zero tolerance of imperfection. But there is “good news” – we have solution. The solution is as believers we can relate to God as our gracious Father through Christ, instead as strict judge through the law. According to Calvin God both accepts and rewards the good works of the justified believers (Inst. 3:15:3f, 3:17:3-10, 3:14:8, 13, 16, 3:18:5). Works are of no value to those who seek justification from them outside of Christ. But for the justified believer the situation is different. Prof. Lane explains the difference: When we approach God in faith we are accepted as righteous, in Christ. But it is not only we who are accepted. God also accepts our good works in Christ, overlooking whatever defects and impurities may remain in them. ‘Therefore, as we ourselves, when we have been engrafted in Christ, are righteous in God’s sight because our iniquities are covered by Christ’s sinlessness, so our works are righteous and are thus regarded because whatever fault is otherwise in them is buried in Christ’s purity, and is not charged to our account.’ Thus, ‘by faith alone not only we ourselves but our works as well are justified’ (Inst. 3:17:10). ‘Everything imperfect in them [works] is covered by Christ’s perfection, every blemish or spot is cleansed away by his purity (Inst. 3:17:8). Prof. Lane refers the concept of “by faith alone we and our works are justified” as double justification.
What is Catholic’s understanding of how God assess our works? First Catholics believe that we cannot do good works, not even have the initiative to do them, unless we are first moved by His grace. Think His grace as initial push from God without which we cannot do any good works. Yet we have freedom to choose whether to cooperate with this grace or not. When God looks at our (graced) works, He is our Father who appreciates our works, done sincerely and without hidden agenda, even if they are imperfect. As analogy, consider a father who displays drawings made by his children at his office – those drawings are far from perfect but the father proudly displays them. Note also that his children cannot make those drawings unless the father provides them first with paper, crayon and some encouragement. The concept of fatherly nature of God in assessing our works is also employed by Calvin, as explained above, but in different context, i.e. He overlooks the imperfection because they are covered by Christ – to me this does not look like fatherly behaviour. Just like on Justification, Protestants (in this case Calvin) applies forensic approach to our works – they are accepted simply because Christ covers up their imperfections, in other words they are declared perfect, a forensic term.